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Brand Management

Centrals and credit unions are focusing on innovative social media and digital strategies to build their brand and attract new members.

When the “Gilmore Girls” revival was released on Netflix last November, the marketing team at Atlantic Central, which represents East Coast credit unions, didn’t miss a beat, posting on its Facebook page: “If Lorelai had gone to a credit union for a loan, she probably could have saved herself a lot of family drama. But then, where would we be without Friday night dinners?” (For those who haven’t watched “Gilmore Girls,” the character Lorelai, played by Lauren Graham, borrows money from her wealthy parents to open her own business and pay for her sharp-witted daughter’s education.)

The release of the latest Star Wars film was seen as another opportunity: “Don’t let your finances go to the dark side— financial advice for every Jedi,” read the Facebook post, which included an eight-second video featuring duelling laser-tipped fingers.

For the Super Bowl, Atlantic Central prepared an 11-second video with the tagline, “Don’t play games with your finances—make sure your future is in good hands by booking an appointment at your local credit union.”

While it may sound like the marketing department at Atlantic Central is having a little too much fun these days, the clever mini-social media campaigns are part of a broader strategy to communicate with, attract and retain members. “We are trying to build the momentum of our credit union network,” says Jennifer Murray, manager of brand marketing at Atlantic Central.

The central’s goal is not only to promote its members’ products and services but also to build awareness around credit unions and their cooperative culture. “We’re not always talking about our products, we’re building our brand,” Murray says. “That means not just focusing on what we want to say but also what our audience wants to hear about.”

The Medium is the Message

Social and digital media are critical tools for any brand today but the strategy isn’t just about medium—it’s also crafting the right message to engage members, in particular millennials, given their growing economic clout. Not only do millennials make up about half of the North American workforce but as a group they’re also poised to inherit trillions from their parents in the years to come. It’s why credit unions, alongside other financial institutions such as the big banks, robo-advisers and other investment firms, are all vying for a share of the burgeoning millennial investment market.

“There needs to be a lot more thought, investment and strategy thinking around social media than even three or four years ago.” – Rhys McKendry

While credit unions may not have the banks’ sizeable balance sheets and budgets to spend on marketing and recruiting, they see their community approach and cooperative business model as potentially more appealing to millennials. It’s a generation said to be more socially and community minded and looking to spend, save and invest its money differently than older generations. Social and digital media are seen as the gateway to most effectively reach this captive audience.

The most common channels that credit unions rely on today include Facebook (comprising Facebook
Live and Facebook Stories), Twitter, YouTube, Instagram (one of the fastest-growing platforms) and LinkedIn, says Rhys McKendry, market research coordinator at Central 1 Credit Union. McKendry, whose job is to track social and digital media content at credit unions across Canada and compare it to competitors in the industry, says that financial cooperatives are starting to gain momentum online and on mobile platforms—although more can and needs to be done.

Credit unions don’t have as big a following on social media as compared to the big banks, for example, which is understandable given their smaller size. Still, McKendry says a number of credit unions are seeing more engagement as they bulk up their social and digital media presence — and budgets. For instance, at Atlantic Central, social media currently accounts for about 25 percent of their media spending. That number was zero five years ago.

Credit unions are also being a lot more strategic about what they post, when and the messages they’re sending. That’s a smart move, says McKendry, given the growing “noise” online and growing challenge that brands in all industries are having breaking through to their target audience. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get your message out through social media,” McKendry says. “Just simply setting up a Facebook or Twitter page and continually pushing out content without any thought to what that content is or any strategy about how it’s going to reach your target audience, isn’t likely going to produce much value for brands in today’s environment.”

“There needs,” adds McKendry, “to be a lot more thought, investment and strategy thinking around social media than even three or four years ago.” McKendry describes social and digital media as
“very valuable” mediums that can also be a lot more cost efficient than traditional advertising, such as TV and print, “as long as you’re doing it right. The key is to understand what your audience is and the type of content that interests them.”

What Members Want

At Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, (519,000 members, $21 billion in assets) the strategy is to use marketing and communication to profile issues considered top of mind for its members. Lately, that has been environmental issues, social inclusion and, of course, the cost of housing in Vancouver. “We focus on issues that are burning in the minds of our members,” says Darwin Sauer, Vancity’s vice-president of digital solutions.

Vancity has been running its #DontGiveUp campaign, which includes a call out for citizens to submit videos about issues they’re facing or are concerned about. Some of those videos have been used as content across its social and digital channels and a few were compiled into a 30-second TV spot. Vancity also struck a partnership with VICE, an in-your-face media outlet that caters to millennials, on a three-part series on affordability, which Sauer describes as a “huge success.”

For Vancity, success of these strategies isn’t just measured in clicks, likes and shares but also membership growth and community impact, both of which are increasing, Sauer says. For instance, Vancity has released reports on food prices, one of which led the province to set up a food security task force. “That’s impact to us,” says Sauer.

Vancity has also been part of the discussion around a lack of affordable housing in Vancouver, for both buyers and renters. In the past year, the province has tried to calm the housing market in the Vancouver area by putting a 15 percent tax on home purchases from foreign buyers, which has indeed cooled the market. As well, the province has offered an interest-free loan of up to $37,500 to first-time homebuyers. Victoria is also spending $500 million on new, affordable housing rental stock. “We can’t take direct credit for that but we definitely contributed to the dialogue,” Sauer says.

Connecting with community

At Westoba Credit Union in Manitoba (38,250 members, $1.3 billion in assets) social and digital media are the driving force behind new ways to connect with the community and build its brand awareness. For example, Westoba uses Facebook to promote local events and leverage local sponsorships, which includes the local universities as well as the Brandon Wheat Kings junior hockey team. The credit union even hires two junior “reporters” each year to interview the players during the games and posts the content online and across its social media platforms. “It’s a great conversation starter and a great equalizer,” says Brenden Roemich, Westoba’s marketing and communications coordinator.

Westoba CEO Jim Rediger is also a bit of a social and digital media star, regularly recording videos for members — and potential new ones—about everything from what’s happening in the community to issues facing financial industry as a whole. It’s about connecting with the community, not selling products, says Roemich. “A hard sell doesn’t get you where you need to go with social media. It’s more of a conversational, engagement piece for us.”

“We’re not always talking about our products, we’re building our brand. That means not just focusing on what we want to say but also what our audience wants to hear about.” – Jennifer Murray

Because Westoba has members in 17 locations across the province, it tries to keep its messaging broad. “We need to find one message that fits everyone, without exclusions,” Roemich says. “It’s looking at doing great things for great people in each of the areas.”

Westoba focuses largely on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and plans to boost its presence on LinkedIn. “It’s a great new medium and allows us to look at things we couldn’t even think about 10 years ago,” Roemich adds.

“Always On” Approach

Atlantic Central already has the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day and other occasions on its marketing calendar for next year as a way to stay on top of events and stay relevant in the minds (and on the screens) of its members. “We want to be out there, engaging and building our brand 12 months a year, not just during campaign periods,” Murray says.

It’s part of the “always on approach” that Atlantic Central uses, which Murray likens to a newsroom working to deliver on relevant information to its audience. The strategy appears to be working so far. Engagement is up (they have doubled social followers in the past few months) and membership at many of its member credit unions is growing.

For Atlantic Central and others, the next step is to keep its members engaged, which Murray says goes back to its integrated marketing approach. That includes other marketing initiatives to welcome new members. “It’s about creating a member-first thinking,” Murray says. “We’re always evolving. We want to be out there, engaging and building our brands. That includes talking to new members as well as being top of mind for existing members.” ◊